Issue 54: Dyslexia and Music Teaching

I have taught piano to a couple of pupils who were “properly”, ie diagnosed, dyslexic. One of them only continued for a couple of years. She was about 7 when she started, as was my first encounter with dyslexia. Reading the music was an issue, to be sure, but low self-esteem and zero confidence were clearly the main factors affecting her progress. Slow, mini-steps forward, lots of playing by ear and rote learning were the key. The Big Discovery came when she triumphantly managed to play “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” from the Pianotime Christmas book, but was unable to read the title of the carol. We both had a good laugh when I pointed out that her school teacher would be able to read the words, but would also be totally incapable of reading the music. This was a long time ago now, and I was still as much of a beginner piano teacher as she was a beginner student.

Since then she has finished secondary school (winning a prize for English along the way) and the last I heard of her, was that she had finished college and found a good job.

Later, I started teaching a lad who was dyslexic, dyspraxic, and knew that he had problems with sequencing and understanding instructions. He was also extremely bright, and already a very competent saxophone player. He used to arrive at the piano like one of those incredibly bouncy superballs; ricocheting off the walls, crashing into the door frame, landing on the piano stool like a whirlwind and still in motion several seconds after apparently sitting down. It was like trying to teach someone whose brain was full of exploding fireworks.

In the second or third lesson, I started off by both of us sitting completely still and silent for 30 seconds “to let all the neurons in your brain settle down” (I have no idea if that phrase contains any scientific truth). At then end of this time, he announced in a thoughtful voice “I don’t think I have sat so still, and for so long ever in my life!”. The subsequent lesson was much more productive, and we used this as the opening for several months. He was a skilled learner, and often I would spend a short time going over a phrase, and leaving him to sort out how to learn it, as my attempts to teach him seemed to cause more confusion than clarity.


With both students, a key concept was to identify repeated phrases, and flag up similarities and differences. Explaining why the phrases were similar but different helped enormously eg ending with THIS note so that the tune could move into a NEW phrase/direction.

He eventually reached Grade 8 piano, having already passed his Diploma on saxophone, started a band which played in several pubs in the area, and went on to study music at university.

Here is a link to a comprehensive guide to teaching music to students with dyslexia. I wish I’d been able to read it BEFORE learning to teach the two students above!



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